Nov 3, 2015

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca SteadGoodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

And from then on, they were the set of all fourth graders who drew creatures on their homework. More than that, they were friends.
Goodbye Stranger is about Bridge, Emily and Tabitha, three seventh-graders who are best friends. Bridge, who survived a serious accident a few years before, has been spending a lot of time thinking about what a nurse told her at the hospital: “You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl, to have survived.” Tab has become increasingly drawn to the feminist ideas one of her teachers has exposed her to, and is trying to puzzle out how they apply to her life and to the social world around her. And Emily, whose talent in sports has catapulted her into unexpected popularity, is trying to navigate the brave new world of boys, friends both old and new, and the pressure to behave in certain ways regardless of whether you want or are ready to.

In addition to Bridge, Em and Tab, Goodbye Stranger is about Sherm Russo. Sherm is a fellow seventh-grader who’s becoming close to Bridge and who’s trying to work through his feelings of abandonment: in a series of unsent letters to his grandfather, Sherm slowly reveals his pain, confusion, and uncertainty about what Nonno Gio’s split from his grandmother means for the connection the two share. The novel’s final point of view character is someone whose identity is only revealed well into the story; to avoid spoilers, I’ll only say that she’s a slightly older girl dealing with the aftermath of a mistake and its potential implications for a friendship that means the world to her.

All the characters in Goodbye Stranger inhabit the same social world, but the novel’s cohesion also comes from the fact that there are strong thematic strands across all three stories — this is a novel about all manners of love, and about the careful negotiation, patience and generosity required to get relationships through rough patches. In fact, I’d go so far as to describe Goodbye Stranger as the Gaudy Night of friendship books: it doesn’t just present functional, emotionally satisfying relationship as ready-made, but looks at them closely and examines the everyday decisions, the small acts of compassion, support and forgiveness, and the emotional labour that go into keeping them that way. I didn’t quite realise how much I needed a story like this in my life until I read it.

2015 has been an amazing year for book releases, so it’s a big deal to say that Goodbye Stranger is probably my favourite read of the year so far. I’ve long since admired Stead’s writing, but this novel takes it to a whole new level. It’s quiet, subtle, and astonishingly perceptive; it’s as emotionally powerful as it is unassuming; and it moved me in more ways than I can properly articulate.

There were two scenes I particularly loved: they mean more in context, of course, but I’ll do my best to explain why they mattered so much (beware of some mild spoilers). The first is when Em and Tab have a fight — the first serious fight in all the years they’ve been friends — and Bridge goes over to Tab’s to stay with her while she cries her eyes out at what she sees as the loss of one of her best friends. Then the doorbell rings and there’s Em — angry and hurt, of course, but nevertheless present and willing to work things out. The hurt they unwittingly cause one another doesn’t shake Emily’s confidence on the solidity of their connection, and there was something moving and disarming about that. The second scene is another example of the same: Gina inviting Celeste into her house to talk things through, even after she confesses to a potentially very hurtful mistake.

Of course, being willing to repair relationships when something threatens them doesn’t mean you have to be willing to withstand cruelty or dysfunction; Goodbye Stranger is about letting go, too, as much as it is about deciding to stay. We see this with Celeste and Vinny — of whom even her best friend in the world says, “When she got hurt, she got mean” — whose parting is as heartbreaking as it is irrevocable. Not every relationship can be patched up, but the characters in Goodbye Stranger are able to live with this knowledge without having it prevent them from giving their all to the connections they form with others. The possibility of loss is ever-present, but fear that it will come to that never becomes their main driving force.

I can’t end this post without mentioning gender and the implicit feminism that informs Stead’s approach to her story: first of all, there’s the fact that Goodbye Stranger deals with slut-shaming, sexual double standards, and the pressure girls face to experience their sexuality for the benefit of others rather than in their own terms. Secondly, Goodbye Stranger is a novel that centres girls’ relationships and the solid ties that bind them to one another without ever making them secondary to anything else. I’ve written at length about how important it is to me to find stories that acknowledge that girls love each other in ways that are powerful and messy and complicated and human, so you can imagine how much it means to find one that does it as well as Goodbye Stranger.

In the end, Bridge finds an answer to the question that nurse’s comment made her consider: call it love, call it connecting, call it the ways, big and small, we’re inextricably linked to each other. It’s not the only possible answer, of course, but more and more I realise it also happens to be mine.

Bits I liked:
In movies it always looks easy to turn away from the mean girl. That’s what the audience wants you to do. But you couldn’t stop thinking about everything you knew about Vinny, everything she knew about you. It hurt when she walked right past you every day, like a real, physical hurt. It felt like you were being erased. And time didn’t make it any better.

Tab wiped her nose with a wad of paper towel she found in her pocket. “You hate me now, right, Em? We can’t be friends anymore.”
Em looked at Tab. “What’s wrong with you? Of course we’re still going to be friends.”

Tab circled back to her. “Bridge, we’ll send each other carnations on Valentine’s Day, right? In high school? Like Celeste told us about?”
“What about your petition?”
“Yeah, I mean, if I don’t do the petition. I’m going to send you all three—white, pink, and red. Because you’re my friend, and I like you, and I love you. Emily, too.”
Bridge smiled. “I’m going to send you two of each.”

That’s what life is. Life is where you sleep and what you see when you wake up in the morning, and who you tell about your weird dreams, and what you eat for breakfast and who you eat it with. Life isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you make yourself, all the time. Life is that half minute in the morning before your cat remembers she’s kind of a grouch, when she pours out her love and doesn’t give a flying newton who sees it.
They read it too: Ex Libris, you?


  1. I really liked this too and for much of the same reasons you give here. I'm thankful I grew up before cell phones and social media -- teen years are hard enough without those complications. I liked the way Stead wove the stories together, adding a little mystery along the way. Very realistic characters.

    1. Yes, absolutely. As for phones and social media, I really appreciate them for what they are and I think the latter's community-building abilities can do a lot for marginalised and isolated kids, but they also make certain forms of harassment far more inescapable and that's very tough to navigate - even as an adult, let alone when you're young.

  2. Sounds amazing! There are probably many books that do this well, but somehow I feel that there is romance everywhere and friendship so often gets left out of the spotlight. Often it's there, ready-made hovering in the background. Haven't reany anything by Rebecca Stead, so it looks like I should change that asap, because 2015 really was amazing for books.

    1. Yes, there are a lot of great books about friendship out there, but they do lack the cultural salience of romance because we don't quite have the language/categories to talk about what they do. Anyway, Stead is unfailingly brilliant - do read her!

  3. Rebecca Stead needs to be more popular than she is because her books are so wonderful. I'll have to get this one soon!

  4. I agree. One of the best books of the year. :)

  5. You know I can never resist a glowing recommendation from you, friend! I'll try to pick this up at my library next time I go.

  6. Aw lovely excerpt! I like a good friendship story. There are far too many with those horrid love triangles and whatever, it's nice to just read about the trials and tribulations of friendships, too, which are a huge part of human relationships we have. Great review!

  7. Hmm. Perhaps it's because I didn't care for When You Reach Me, but I feel like I would have a hard time getting too invested in the tribulations of 7th graders these days.I don't really have any emotional stake in kids of that age--don't have any, don't much want to remember being that age myself, don't really feel like I need to go through it again at this point.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.